I recently received a review copy of a new book by Ben Lindsay, called We Need to Talk about Race (it’s out now and you can buy it by clicking on the title). It’s a very good read – clear and helpful, with some good biblical illustrations (it’s aimed at Christians), and a hopeful call to power the fight with prayer.
One area where I felt it was a little weak was in helping the white reader – like me – understand the reality of racism in modern Britain. We know there are extremists, especially in this Brexit era, but surely on a day-to-day level racism isn’t really a thing any more, is it?
If you think that, I suggest you read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (or at least the first half of it) before you read Lindsay’s book. She really opened my eyes to the reality of the world we live in, and forced me to consider some of my own gut-level responses to what I was reading.
It was shocking to see how often I thought ‘but that’s not racist, it’s just…’ before having to correct myself and realise that if a black person tells me they feel ‘othered’, excluded or discriminated against by attitudes or actions I think of as normal, I need to listen to their experience and respect their feelings. There may be occasions when there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication, but for the most part, the way I make them feel matters more than the way I consciously intended to make them feel.
Take the example of white people asking to touch black people’s hair. To the best of my knowledge I have never done it, just as I have never asked to touch a pregnant woman’s bump (eww!). I don’t touch anyone else’s tummy or hair, so why should I touch theirs? But apparently a lot of people don’t feel that way. Black people – men and women – frequently have friends and strangers asking to touch their hair – and it’s not OK. My gut reaction to that is ‘They should be flattered, especially when it’s women with amazing weaves – they look so incredible; it’s a compliment to want to trace the lines and feel the textures…’ But what I intend to communicate in that moment (if I were to do it) is not what my words and actions actually communicate. They say, ‘You are strange, you are different, you are not one of us.’ In some cases they may communicate ‘you are like an animal to pet, not a human to talk to. The interesting thing about you is your physical appearance, not your brain’.
How awful! Can you imagine what that must feel like?
I’ve now read two books about this, and have been thinking about it for a while. I am trying to be an advocate, or an ally as Ben calls them. I’m trying to look beyond the white ways of expressing godliness and giftedness, for example, and to look for the ways God is using the black and Asian people in my church, to see how I can help them to find their place in ministry, to use my voice and influence on behalf of those who don’t have such access.
And yet, as I’ve written reviews (for Think Theology and Jubilee+), and even as I’ve been writing this, I’ve discovered that I’m assuming my readers will be white. Just look at that line above the previous paragraph: “Can you imagine what that must feel like?” What does that assume about the reader?
In my reviews, once I noticed this I went back through and tried to spot those assumptions and to preface them with ‘If you’re white…’, but even having noticed them then, they have still crept in today.
Racism runs deep. It is formed of layer upon layer of assumptions and attitudes built into our culture over hundreds of years. It is incredibly hard to detect in oneself, which makes it incredibly hard to extract and correct. Which is precisely why we need books like these, from Lindsay and Eddo-Lodge. We – white people and people of colour – need these courageous individuals to stand up and say, ‘This is how it is for us. And this is how we can work together to make a difference.’
If you’re black, Asian or from another minority group in the UK, I’m sorry for my unconscious racism. Thank you for your patience with me, your willingness to love me despite my errors, your incredible tenacity to keep trying when I and others like me are so blind.